August 14, 2006
This is your train. This is your train on drugs
The Shinkansen (sometimes called the Bullet Train) is a high-speed train that goes roughly 200 mph. The new Maglev version floats on a magnetic cushion and cruises at over 350 mph which is pretty fast when you're on the ground.
The safety record is good too: no fatalities due to crashing or derailing in over 40 years of service. I think this is due to some fairly simple differences between the Shinkansen and high speed trains in other countries:
(1) The Shinkansen uses its own dedicated tracks instead of sharing them with regular trains. So the Shinkansen never has to slow down or wait for regular trains to pass by. This is different than most other countries and helps reduce the most common late time to less than 15 seconds.
(2) The Shinkansen uses an automated system (similar to the one Lexus is now using in cars) that regulates the speed of every train so it cannot get within a certain distance of the train in front of it. Most train systems around the world use signals (red, yellow and green lights or signs) to tell drivers how fast they can go. So not only does the Shinkansen avoid ever crashing into the train ahead of it, but it also allows fully loaded, 1000 passenger trains to depart every 5 minutes all day long, which makes it pretty efficient.
(3) The Shinkansen stops running every night from 12 midnight until 6 am in the morning, and uses this downtime to physically test every inch of track every night so repairs can be made before they become dangerous problems. This is different than Amtrak or British Rail, which both run 24/7 and so have to delay traffic off and on in the middle of the day whenever breakdowns occur.
I love Amtrak though, too, because America is so vast and fun to see. I once got to ride from Chicago to Los Angeles on it and it was wonderful! But it would have been fun also if we could have Shinkansen here.
Click on the link to see an amateur video of the new Maglev version racing by: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=2926400396387878713 The last third of the video is pretty cool when you get to see the train from the exterior flying by some people.
August 10, 2006
We've secretly replaced their regular beach with new Folger's crystals
One thing you never have to worry about is the weather, because it's always sunny at this beach. Lots of fun (if you don't mind some crowds). And no sharks.
Check it out for yourself at: http://www.metacafe.com/watch/31455/artificial_beach_in_japan/
(Sorry I haven't posted for a little while. Had to make several back and forth trips to Japan. Business is busy!)
August 07, 2006
Is this driving innovation?
I was wondering what factors support Japan's tendency toward innovation. I mean, how come they keep coming up with new products, new services, new business models, entirely new categories?
Tokyo is often described as a place to go to to find and share new ideas.
Then it struck me: Maybe their fluency in innovation is partly a function of the very small number of attorneys Japan has. Exact counts vary, but in broad terms, America has 50 times more attorneys than Japan. It seems like it should only have about twice as many since the population of America is only twice that of Japan.
The risk of being sued if a new idea doesn't work out could potentially inhibit innovation. And that risk is huge here in America, but miniscule in Japan, even though Japan is ridiculously fastidious about product safety.
A friend once told me, as a result, that personal family airplanes in the US (like Cessnas and such) had not experienced significant design changes in more than 30 years because designers were afraid any new innovations might be construed as a legal admission that their earlier airplanes had been inferior or dangerous, resulting in a whole new category of product liability suits.
So fear caused by litigation designed to protect us might actually make us less safe, less productive, less happy. I don't know this for sure. It's just an idea I had. But the numbers sure look startling. Maybe we need more engineers now, not more attorneys. What do you think?
Some third party sources: http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2006/03/28/the-land-of-the-rising-number-of-lawsuits/ and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judicial_system_of_Japan which actually says there are even fewer attorneys in Japan than the number I illustrate above. (In my graphic above, each little attorney represents 10,000 peers by the way.)
August 03, 2006
Footloose, kick off your Sunday shoes
ASIMO has actually been around now in one version or another for about four years. But his most recent versions are pretty remarkable. Good enough, anyway, that South Park parodied him in an episode called AWESOM-O.
Bipedal mobility (or something better if you can think of it) is necessary if robots are ever to really become a part of our everyday lives, in our homes and on our streets, accompanying their human siblings in natural and urban environments.
There are some excellent videos demonstrating ASIMO here: http://world.honda.com/ASIMO/ And there's more information here: http://asimo.honda.com/
July 31, 2006
But I have to tell you about my favorite brand of purses and handbags there: Samantha Thavasa. They are so cute, I can't resist buying one almost every time I go to Tokyo.
A friend told me the name of the company came from the TV show Bewitched where Elizabeth Montgomery played the perfectly 50's housewife Samantha (who was secretly a witch) and her daughter (also magic) was named Tabitha. Thavasa is sort of like the way we pronounce Tabitha.
Anyway, the purses are to die for! They all have really cute colors and designs, are high quality materials and stitching, and use fake fur, jewels, ribbons and other things that make them very different from the mostly leather Daniel Boone style purses they sell here in San Francisco department stores.
In Japan, we like to change our purse almost every day to suit our mood and outfit. We don't really tend to stick to one old faithful all purpose bag. They've been around in Tokyo for a couple of years now (where they were invented), and I've heard they're going to go on sale in New York sometime later this Spring (2006).
I think American women would love them. I'm not sure why they're not here yet. It gets so dull only using leather and plastic. Sometimes a girl wants to look like a girl ...
Here's Samantha Thavasa's website: http://www.samantha.co.jp/
July 27, 2006
The plan is to house 35,000 people in apartments within the structure, and an additional 100,000 office workers every day. (All seven WTC towers combined in New York held 50,000 people, by way of comparison, I think.)
The project is expected to include apartments, offices, theaters, schools, public spaces and huge gardens (like the ones shown in the picture) so users can enjoy nature in the building (and so they have places to escape to during fires).
Triple-decker high speed elevators that hold up to 70 people will take passengers between the 14 space plateaus from where they can then take regular elevators to nearby floors.
I think it's kind of neat to imagine having an entire city located in one single large building. At least it wouldn't be hard to commute to work! If Japan manages to complete Sky City 1000, maybe it will help stop humans from destroying forests just to create more land for housing and cities.
Read about it on the architect's own website here: http://www.takenaka.co.jp/takenaka_e/techno/63_sky/63_sky.htm
July 24, 2006
Another thing you haven't heard of yet
Let me see if I can explain it simply: Red Tacton is a technology that you can embed in your cell phone or a credit card or any other personal device. Once you have it, the Red Tacton enabled device reads a biomarker that proves your body is really you, then cloaks you in a harmless laser optical field that can transmit data. Did I put you to sleep yet? Wake up or you're gonna lose your Geek license!
So why would we want to pass data through touch when we can already do it wirelessly? I knew you'd ask that. After all, relying on someone to touch something seems kind of counter-intuitive, doesn't it?
Ah, but there are some advantages. Imagine these applications: You go to open a bottle of medicine, it only opens for you, not for anyone else. So no one gets poisoned. You walk past a flat-screen advertisement in the mall, once your feet touch the ground near the ad, the advertisement changes to stuff you like to buy.
Want to make a phone call but forgot your cell phone? Just pick up anyone's cell phone and instantly, upon your touch all the phone numbers and address contacts in display yours (no longer your friends), the billing is sent to you, your ring tones and calendar messages display on his phone ... In other words, the device itself is no longer important. Any phone is yours.
Doors only open for people authorized to go through them. No keys are needed anymore. And they log each entry. Rent a car (or borrow your friend's wheels) and the car automatically adjusts the seat, radio station, presets, and air temperature to your favorites.
The possibilities are endless. And I think it's a very different way of thinking than WiFi or Bluetooth. Read about it from the source here: http://www.redtacton.com/en/
July 20, 2006
Open the pod bay doors HAL
A professor at Tsukuba University in Japan has done just that: made an exoskeleton called HAL that supplements the wearer's natural body strength. Bottom line? Wear HAL and you can pick up twice the weight of a normal person, walk twice as far ... maybe even fight twice as hard.
Anyway, the usage the inventor in Japan has in mind is a little more benign than creating ultimate warriors or tireless workers (although those things might come too). Right now, it's being looked at as a way to help older people and paralytics walk again.
Here's an article about a guy they have testing it who is paralyzed from the neck down, but with HAL is planning to scale a mountain peak: http://www.theage.com.au/news/breaking/robot-suit-will-help-quadriplegic-scale-the-heights/2006/04/04/1143916503382.html
And here's the official website for the professor's university page: http://sanlab.kz.tsukuba.ac.jp/indexE.html
July 17, 2006
Have supersonic jet, will travel
I asked the president of JAXA (Tachikawa-san) why he thought Japan would be able to make a commercially viable supersonic jetliner when British Airways and Air France had both cancelled their entirely due to never making it profitable. (Russia also had a brief failure Concordski).
Tachikawa replied without hesitation: "Because our supersonic airplane is entirely different than theirs. It's a completely different engine design, as different from conventional jet engines as the Toyota Prius Hybrid is from conventional automobiles." And in fact, the first tests have shown that the new Japanese supersonic jetliner is faster, quieter, far more fuel efficient, pollutes less, and carries more passengers than any of the now defunct first-generation Concordes did.
It may be a while before it's commercially available. (Maybe 2015 or so.) But man, what a difference it would make. I have to fly every month back and forth between San Francisco and Tokyo (economy class). I would love to get there in two hours instead of eleven.
More information here: http://www.ista.jaxa.jp/res/a01/0a00.html
July 10, 2006
Still no cure for cancer
Because Tokyo is very crowded, we are very sensitive to personal odors and like to keep our breath smelling as fresh as possible.
One safeguard is the Hello Kitty Fresh Kiss which you can carry in your pocket anywhere you go. (I always have one with me!) Just blow into the sensor and let the Kitty on screen show how pleasant she is. She'll display a smiley face for if youy have good breath, or an angry face if you have bad breath.
What Kitty actually does is use a semiconductor gas sensor to read the amount of volatile sulfides and hydrocarbons in your mouth. If Kitty scowls at you instead of smiles, you'd better brush your teeth, use mouthwash, suck on a mint or chew some gum before making your romantic moves.
Tanita makes the device (the same people who make digital scales with body fat readers), and you can buy Hello Kitty Fresh Kiss at Rakuten here: http://www.rakuten.co.jp/asobi-ds/491260/546214/
July 06, 2006
Consumerism Japanese style
I don't think most people in America are really aware of how strong consumer retail spending is in Japan. Everyone thinks the whole country's broke or something. Actually, it's quite the opposite. Japanese people (in my opinion) are crazy about shopping, and love to buy high quality brand name goods no matter what the price!
Don't believe me? Click through to see the opening day of Apple's first flagship store in Tokyo (in the Ginza area). It was the biggest opening Apple ever had anywhere in the world. If you want to understand how powerful the retail experience is in Japan, watch the entire video from start to finish. All it does is follows the peaceful line of customers waiting to get into the Apple store on its first day.
I have never seen anything like it in San Francisco or New York.
Click here to see the movie: http://homepage.mac.com/hsk/applejapan.html
(Alternate link just in case the main one above is down: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9TyR3fyLO_I&search=ginza%20apple%20store)
July 03, 2006
Those aren't the droids you are looking for
QRIO is also Internet-ready, so it can read you your e-mail, do online research for you, and post pictures it takes through its camera eyes to the Internet. Of course, without good security firewalls, robots connected to the Internet could potentially be taken over by hackers and used to spy in a home. But I guess that's a problem all Japanese robots will have to solve if they're ever to go international.
Anyway, Sony is emphatic they'll never give up commercializing humanoid robots. QRIO's project director even said, "What we expected of AIBO (Sony's earlier robot dog) was for it to take on the role of a pet. QRIO, on the other hand, might exist on the level of a child."
Sounds good. But just remember that even if these robots can't communicate well with people yet, it doesn't mean they won't learn to communicate well with each other. (Just kidding! I think QRIO's cute!)
See QRIO in action here: http://www.sony.co.jp/SonyInfo/QRIO/ Watch the English version. It has several sections in Flash.
June 29, 2006
Not your father's Buick
The car, called KAZ, has no toxic emissions at all and does not require gasoline. It seats eight people comfortably, and all its wheels steer independently, so it can turn on a dime in spite of its big size.
Can you imagine a world where we don't even need oil anymore? Well, the people at Keio University can too!
You can read about the car here: http://www.kaz-style.com/en/index.html Or you can see the university's site about it here: http://web.sfc.keio.ac.jp/~hiros/kaz/
June 26, 2006
That's no moon... that's a space station
Anyway, the Solar Ark (besides being a cool office building) has solar panels built into it -- all over. In fact, the whole thing is basically one of the world's biggest solar energy generation systems. It makes enough energy everyday not only for its own needs, but to power the equivalent of 200 homes as well.
There's a really big push for environmentally friendly (or so-called "green") buildings in Japan right now. Tokyo, for example, requires all new commercial buildings to include a roof top garden so the air will stay cleaner.
At first, we just built whatever we could after the war. The basic architectural philosophy was, "let's just slap something up and get to work before everyone starves to death." But now thousands of new buildings are going up that represent a whole new attitude. The new public and company buildings are cool and dramatic ... and green.
You can see the SANYO Solar Ark here: http://www.solar-ark.com/english/about/index.html or go to Japan and visit it for free!
June 22, 2006
Beam me up, Scotty!
Exhibit A: the new Nissan Terranaut modeled after Star Trek's USS Enterprise shuttlecraft. Instead of the usual SUV boredom, the Terranaut has a spherical laboratory that gives all the riders access to its various workstations.
Check out the cool video of the car at http://youtube.com/watch?v=lsU8R5lJPOY If you watch it all the way toward the end, you can see how they're even doing the control panels in the style of Star Trek.
I'll tell you more about Japanese cars later. There are some really cool features coming up you should know about. But for now, I'm still too jetlagged to write much. Sorry.
June 19, 2006
I, for one, welcome our new Overlords
Life imitates art, I guess. Not sure what they're planning to use it for yet. Maybe it was just a demonstration of mobility. But some of the online videos even show it armed with huge guns.
Here's the creator's website: http://www.sakakibara-kikai.co.jp/products/other/LW.htm Click through to see the video.
June 15, 2006
But does it run Linux?
Anyway, thought this was really interesting: In Japan, as you probably already know, we already use bar codes that are a lot different from the ones in the US that stores put on their products to record SKU numbers and punkers tattoo on the backs of their necks to decry corporate oppression or some such thinking.
Anyway, ours are smaller, square, and contain lots more data. (You can read about the ones we already use here: http://www.denso-wave.com/qrcode/qrfeature-e.html).
Well now a Japanese company has developed 3-dimensional color bar codes that can contain so much data, they can even hold video clips!
So here's the use: You print the bar code on any magazine advertisement or on any product. Someone with a standard cell phone scans the barcode using their camera. And voila! A video commercial instantly appears on your cell phone screen. No waiting. No download time. No fuss.
When you think about it, it kind of redefines what "data" really is, how it's stored, and how it can be transmitted. Here's the company that makes the new kind: http://www.ci-a.com/cl/var.html
June 12, 2006
Robots for old people
And best of all, he's soft and cuddly like a plush toy and has a face somewhere between the Pillsbury Doughboy and those block-headed guys Gumby used to get chased by.
So what's he for? Taking care of the elderly. Japan has an aging population, and robots currently figure large into their plans for future domestic service.
We started naming our robots and treating them like members of the family long ago. Even the old fashioned robots in car factories that don't look like anything other than machines are named by the workers and treated like they're alive. I guess the first robot creators wanted us to grow up without being scared of them. Maybe it's a plot, I don't know.
Anyway, the creators of this little guy (named RI-MAN) can be found here: They even have some videos on their site. http://www.bmc.riken.jp/~RI-MAN/index_us.html
June 08, 2006
It's a life form Jim, but not as we know it
But we also want to perfect robots for consumer and domestic uses, just the way we implemented them into industries in past decades. So here's one of the latest models testing now in Japan: Actroid. (The name is a cross between Actress and Android.)
She's very pretty, and speaks quite well, blinks, turns her head, uses her hands to gesture and so on. I don't think Actroid is perfect yet. She still moves a little like the old Disney characters at the Meet Mr. Lincoln exhibit. But she's getting there!
Click here if you want to see a video of Actroid in action. There are several linked to the creator's site. All of them are different. Try one: http://www.kokoro-dreams.co.jp/moviej.html
UPDATE: Here's another more interesting video about Actroid (in English) from National Geographic: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/03/0331_060331_robot_video.html
June 05, 2006
NTT DoCoMo Vision 2010
DoCoMo is one of Japan's largest cell phone companies. But it really has a vision that goes way beyond just mobile phones. It has plans to make life more convenient by embedding mobile technology into everything: video phones, holograms, medicine, transportation ... you name it.
There's an awesome video online (in English) that shows what DoCoMo plans to do. I think everyone should really watch it. The video also shows some pretty authentic Japanese values in my humble opinion, even though you might think it's a little hokey. I think every company should have visions articulated as well as DoCoMo's.
Click here to see the video for yourself now: http://www.docomo-usa.com/vision2010/Vision_2010_medium.wvx
(Sorry for those of you who tried but couldn't see the video last week. DoCoMo took it off their Japanese site. But I found it on their US site now, so have updated the links. Watch it while you can!)
June 01, 2006
Romulan cloaking device?
The idea, besides uber-cool clothing, is to use the material for surgeon's gloves, on the bottoms of airplane cockpits, and so forth.
They just keep innovating and innovating!